I was 16 years old when I climbed into the shower one morning and felt my skin begin to tingle. I assumed the water was too hot, so I turned the temperature down. But then my ears started ringing, and my head began to throb. I took a few deep breaths, leaned against the wall, and slowly sank to my knees. I tried shaking my head back and forth, thinking I could snap myself out of this. But no. In a flash, I was lying on the shower floor with the water beating down on me from above. I could barely think. Then everything went black.
It all began in the sixth grade.
First my hormones exploded and turned my face into a pizza. Then my mother took me to an eye doctor, who fitted me with a pair of coke-bottle glasses. On top of all that, I was a porker—a big-butted, 5-foot-2, 145-pound Moon Pie in size-14 jeans with an elastic waistband. This meant I spent Saturday nights alone, doing "fat girl" activities like reading romance novels and eating potato chips, while wondering if I'd ever have a boyfriend. When I'd wake up in the middle of the night, I'd go downstairs to find my mom sitting in the kitchen, ready to comfort me by spreading peanut butter between two Ritz crackers. "Want a sandwich?" she'd lovingly ask. I'd been chubby my whole life, thanks to a healthy appetite and my mom's generous Southern cooking.
Public school in Burlington, North Carolina, only reinforced my insecurities. Showing up every day was like jumping into a shark tank filled with cute cheerleaders. I'd been swimming with them since kindergarten. Or rather, they'd been swimming; I'd just been floating along like a big, fat buoy. But one Friday in gym class, in the ninth grade, something changed. As I struggled to hide my cottage-cheese thighs from the stares of the stick-thin girls, someone shouted, "Everybody duck—here comes the thunder!" That's when I decided I wanted to be popular and happy and hot ... which, in girl terms, meant skinny. The fat girl needed to die.
First, I tried the usual dieting. I ate fat-free lunch meat and chicken noodle soup. I even tried my Granny Ruth's "buttermilk and cornbread diet," which, naturally, was more tasty than effective. Nothing worked. I needed something more drastic. I needed to be inspired. I needed major motivation to transform myself into a svelte Southern belle.
My answer came in the form of a premier, all-girls boarding school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was home to some of the South's most prized debutantes—upper-class Scarlett O'Hara look-alikes who officially enter society like little ladies in lavish coming-out balls. I'd never thought of myself as debutante material, all dressed up in satin and lace, dancing with my daddy before being presented to society at a fancy ball. But when I enrolled in this school at age 15, my thinking began to change. Tenth grade was a whole new world, full of late-night gab sessions with my roommate and new best friend. I started to feel less alone.
One day, after listening to me whine about my weight for the hundredth time, my roommate suggested a solution: a little pink pill—a laxative. "It'll change your life," she said. Later that night, a miracle happened. My muscles burned, my stomach cramped, and what felt like half my weight in water ran down the toilet. When I looked in the bathroom mirror, I was astonished. My stomach looked distinctly flatter. For a second, the fat girl inside me felt almost ... pretty.
After that, I started taking laxatives every day. The pills felt like Excalibur in my hands. With their help, I began waging war against the fat. Yes, I had to run to the toilet constantly, necessitating all kinds of fibs to get out of class. I'm sure my teachers were suspicious, but nobody ever called my parents or mentioned my frequent bathroom breaks to the dean. Instead, as the weeks went by and the pounds slipped off, everyone complimented me. My grades were improving, I was feeling more confident, and boys on the street were starting to notice me.
Feeling inspired, I decided to take my mission to a new level—by restricting the food I ate. I started skipping breakfast; for lunch I'd eat only a cup of bran cereal, topped with the smallest amount of skim milk possible. Dinner wasn't allowed because I couldn't burn off the calories before bed. My new circle of friends also advised me to down laxatives with black coffee—a diuretic that would force excess water out of my body and help make me lean. Of course, coffee plus laxatives made bathroom visits more necessary than ever. "You need to learn to hold your liquor," my friends said. My stomach rumbled all the time, so my pals told me to chew peppermint candies. Chewing on them tricks your stomach into registering the sugar as food, so your muscles stop churning, or so I was told.
Over the months, I watched my weight drop on the scale—130 pounds, then 123, 117, 110. I was thrilled. Yet somehow it was never enough. When a couple of girls in my AP English class taught me another trick to keep my body laced with laxatives, I embraced the idea wholeheartedly. They showed me how to steam open a little blue packet of Equal sweetener and fill it with finely ground laxatives. The thinking was this: I could keep a stash of these Equal packets in my purse and sprinkle the contents on my cereal, coffee, or tea anytime—right in front of my teachers' eyes. My friends and I thought we were incredibly clever. Yes, we could've just popped a pill in private in a bathroom stall, but this was real subterfuge. Cool.
Believe it or not, eventually I got myself down to about 150 calories a day. I'd count the calories in my head in class: grapefruit juice, 32 calories; skim milk, 20 calories; bran cereal, 100 calories. If I started fantasizing about chocolate, I'd dig an Equal out of my pocket and swallow its contents dry. When the powder kicked in, my stomach muscles would suddenly clench, and I'd feel ... yes, nauseous, but also relieved. And powerful. And hungry. Always hungry, as I watched the bran flakes—which my body hadn't had time to digest—dip and swirl and disappear down the toilet.
A few months later, I upped the ante yet again: I started sprinting four miles uphill, five times a week. I suspected that my parents knew something was terribly wrong, but we never discussed it. My dad would mention how I was "about a hundred pounds, soaking wet," but that's as far as he went. Maybe he felt like he'd make it worse by confronting me. Maybe he didn't want to scare me or make me feel attacked. All I knew was that I was winning the war. The fat girl was slowly melting away, like the Wicked Witch of the West. Now, at 103 pounds, I cruised the mall for sexy halter tops, high heels, skinny jeans. For the first time in my life, I felt hot. To my delight, I heard some of the older girls at school whispering, "What's her secret?"
My secrets were many. And they kept growing. A girl in my biology class taught me an excellent exercise: Suck in as deep as you can, flexing your stomach muscles to shrink your waistline as much as possible. Then push all the air out of your lungs. Count to 10—or until you get dizzy. And then repeat. She said it would tone and define my quickly shrinking stomach muscles.
I'd do the exercises four times a day—once in the morning before classes, twice after lunch, and once before bed. Afterward, I'd measure my stomach, cupping one hand around each side of my waist. If my gut stretched beyond the limits of my thumb and forefinger, I'd punish myself. Only half a cup of bran cereal today—no milk.
A born perfectionist and people-pleaser, I was determined to become as skinny and perfect as could be. Away from my mother, who had tenderly raised me on fattening foods like lemon meringue pie, cheese toast, buttered grits, bacon, country-style steak covered in gravy, and cream chipped beef slathered over slices of bread, I no longer felt I had to please her by appreciating the food she had so carefully prepared.
I tightened my self-control, acing tests and joining clubs. I would become a perfect Southern lady. Indeed, by the 11th grade, I hit a perfect size 2. Boys smiled at me; grown men gawked from their cars. I met a handsome 21-year-old boyfriend through my aunt, and I invited him to my junior prom.
Not that it was always a breeze. That spring, I spent prom night on the toilet. Soon after, my stomach stopped responding to two pills a day. Now my system needed four to perform. Lunches with friends in the cafeteria morphed into isolated events in my room. Sure, my friends were on laxatives, too, but I had taken my quest to a much deeper extreme. I installed a mini fridge in my room, telling myself it was to keep the milk fresh. But really, I just didn't want to eat in front of anyone anymore. I was becoming paranoid, and I feared being judged—even by the same girls who'd taught me my tricks.
It got to a point where I could hardly concentrate on anything but eating—or not eating. I often felt light-headed, dizzy, and daydreamy; visions of Dawson's Creek floated through my head during history class. Yet no matter how I looked in the mirror, the girl I saw there just didn't seem thin enough. I couldn't see the skin and bones I'd become. The girls who called me "Anna-rexic" behind my back? They were just jealous. And again, no one spoke up. No one dared to disapprove or tell the former fat girl that she'd gone too far.
After a year-and-a-half of my rigid routine, my mission finally came to an end. That fateful morning in the shower, I fell unconscious. I don't know how much time went by before my roommate rescued me, smacking me awake and dragging me to my feet. I was lucky; I could've drowned, slipped into a coma, or gone into cardiac arrest. I'd stripped my body of all the nutrients and electrolytes it needed to function. "Anna, it's gonna be all right," my roommate whispered. For a fleeting moment, I thought to myself, At least I would've died skinny.
My roommate and I kept that incident as our little secret. I was too mortified to confess my eating disorder to my parents or teachers. I felt terrified of being shipped off to rehab or kicked out of school. But that day changed things for me—it was my wake-up call. I promised myself: Never again. Never again will I risk my life just to be thin.
Of course, I wasn't able to change my habits overnight. While I did flush my laxatives and Equal packets, I continued to struggle during my college years, mainly with excessive exercise. And I never sought professional or parental help, which isn't a genius idea, I know. I was simply too ashamed and stubborn to ask for assistance. But gradually, I shifted my focus away from my weight, eating once-forbidden foods like fruit or buttered bagels, investing in comfortable clothes instead of jeans that were so tight-fitting, I had to lie on my bed in order to zip them up. Eventually, I started writing—a new hobby that preoccupied my thoughts and filled the gap that my obsession with size had left.
Today, I'm a happy, healthy, laxative-free 28-year-old. I finally feel beautiful, inside and out. Still, the past sometimes lingers like a ghost of my former self. Every time I pass a mirror, I'm reminded of that long-ago girl, urging me—ordering me—to lose an inch here or there. Telling me the woman I see isn't the woman I really am. Only now, I'm no longer listening.